It’s finally happened. I’ve begun hugging trees.
It was inevitable, I suppose. I’ve always admired trees, after all. If I were the painter that my attempt at a college art major persuaded me I wasn’t, I would paint trees. There something infinitely satisfying about them, whether it’s the graceful symmetry of a young elm, the fascinating gnarl of a venerable willow, or the stark elegance of bare cottonwood branches against a winter sky.
Much as I like trees, though, I’ve never actually gone around hugging them. Smelling them, yes. There’s nothing quite like the enticing clean odor of fresh-cut wood. An apple tree or plum thicket in bloom in the spring smells better than a whole hothouse full of roses.
Trees have more subtle smells, too. On a warm summer day, the bark of a Ponderosa pine smells like vanilla. Put your face close to the trunk and inhale, and you’d swear you were in your grandmother’s kitchen helping to mix up a batch of cookies. And at certain times of the year in the Black Hills, the air even in town smells deliciously of turpentine.
So I admit to being a tree-watcher and a tree-sniffer. Not a tree-hugger, though, until this week.
We went for a hike on the first day of February, a sunny day with unseasonably warm temperatures but a brisk wind. Our route took us across a meadow and up to the top of a high ridge. The last part was a scramble rather than a hike, over steep rock ledges where juniper bushes and young pine trees clung on by their toenails. In between layers of exposed rock, the surface was a loose mix of soil and pine needles, made even more slippery by a dusting of fresh snow. Getting to the top meant anchoring ourselves carefully, one boot at a time, and pulling ourselves up by grabbing whatever plants were within reach.
About half way up, it occurred to me to wonder what in the name of common sense we were doing this for. By then, of course, it was a little late to change our minds.
The reward at the top was a level hike along the ridge top, with a spectacular view of the Black Hills to the west and the prairies to the east. Then came the hard part—going back down.
I’m not proud. I did most of it crouching or sitting, snow or not, wet jeans being preferable to sprained ankles or broken legs. I clutched at bushes. I crab-crawled down rocks. And I hugged trees—every one I could get close to. When you’re making your way down a slippery slope that you wish you hadn’t begun in the first place, there’s nothing like wrapping your arms around a good, solid tree while you negotiate that next treacherous step.
So it’s official. I’m now a tree-hugger. I just hope my new arboreal best friends never find out about all the firewood I’ve helped cut this winter.